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What is a Quaker Book of Faith and Practice?


At a minimum, the book of faith and practice
sets down the rules that Friends are expected to follow in their business procedures. So to some extent, books of faith and practice
are rather legalistic documents. I am Tom Hamm. I am a resident of Richmond, Indiana, a member
of West Richmond Friends Meeting in the New Association of Friends, and I am a professor
of history and director of special collections at Earlham College. Books of Quaker faith and practice originated
in the 17th century when yearly meetings (the highest authority among Friends) began making
decisions about what was acceptable Quaker behavior. Some of these decisions were rules that just
about all churches at the time would have embraced: it’s unacceptable to get drunk,
it’s unacceptable to commit adultery, it’s unacceptable to steal something from someone
else. Others of these decisions or rulings reflected
Quaker peculiarities: things that distinguished Friends from other religious groups, even
other Protestants. So for example, here in the books of discipline
you would find recorded that Friends have a testimony against oath-taking, that Friends
have a testimony against bearing arms, Friends have a testimony for plainness and simplicity
and moderation. Friends are expected to use the plain language
of “thee” and “thy” to a single person. Meetings are to take care that engraved tombstones
are not found in their burying grounds. Originally these decisions and rulings were
simply recorded in manuscript form. Beginning in the late 18th century, yearly
meetings began to put them into print, and by the 19th century every yearly meeting has
its own printed discipline. In the 20th century, the general tendency
was away from referring to these as “books of discipline” and instead referring to
them as books of faith and practice, because the latter term was seen as more descriptive
of what they were. Almost every yearly meeting of Friends in
the world today has a book of faith and practice. As friends around the world today are diverse,
you will find considerable diversity in books of faith and practice. For Friends who come out of the Orthodox tradition
in American Quakerism, that which in doctrine is closer to evangelical Protestantism, the
book of faith and practice is not only a book of business guidelines, but it also contains
a number of statements about what Friends believe, statements that it is expected you
are accepting as a statement of your personal belief when you become a part of that yearly
meeting. On the other hand, Friends in Friends General
Conference, Friends in many independent yearly meetings who come out of the Hicksite tradition
that began in the 1820s, look with considerable skepticism on any authority—even their own
meeting—telling them what they are expected to believe. So if you look at the book of faith and practice
of, say, Philadelphia or North Pacific Yearly Meeting today, what you are most likely to
find are a collection of excerpts and quotations from Quaker writings presenting a variety
of different viewpoints on a variety of topics and issues. Implicit in that is the expectation that you
will find what speaks most powerfully to you.

Otis Rodgers

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1 COMMENTS

  1. Morganne M Posted on June 21, 2019 at 4:06 am

    Oh, this was excellent. This guy is always so informed on those cool little historical tidbits when you get him in front of the camera.

    Reply
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